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Dilemma of workplace dating

Opinion & Analysis
THE old saying says: “you don’t dip your pen in the company ink” and it’s true there are dangers associated with workplace dating. Some of us might have heard about couples who met at work and lived happily ever after, but the question remains unanswered if that was proper and correct. Now if workplace dating […]

THE old saying says: “you don’t dip your pen in the company ink” and it’s true there are dangers associated with workplace dating. Some of us might have heard about couples who met at work and lived happily ever after, but the question remains unanswered if that was proper and correct. Now if workplace dating is such a bad idea, why do employees keep doing it? Workplace dating, romance and relationships are a reality. There is need to preserve your image and the business reputation before it goes out of hand.

Is workplace dating a reality or a myth?

The subject of workplace romance seems to be taboo and very few are comfortable in discussing the issue. I know a lot of people who can argue and say that at our company there are policies and procedures but wait until you hear a scandal at your own company, that’s when you will notice that it’s a reality in almost all organisations.

Workplace romance is a reality in many organisations, both at a global scale and in the Zimbabwean context. Given the number of hours we spend at our jobs, it is not surprising that many love matches have been made in the workplace.

Regrettably, not all love stories end happily and it’s just an uncontested fact. But even if they do, the potential problems employers face from romances at work should not be ignored.

Even if organisations put measures to stop workplace relationships, they are bound to develop. May people justify workplace dating and relations because they feel employees are working longer hours in environments that encourage teamwork and familiarity.

More so, as work becomes increasingly intense and time-consuming, individuals find themselves with less leisure time for outside activities where they traditionally meet new people and end up hunting from within. Before you act on your feelings, it’s important to think through the risks associated with that. The reality is, although there are rules surrounding dating in the office, human beings at the end still continue with it.

The laws around workplace relationships

Under national law, section 24 of the Constitution is an aspirational provision of the right to work. In light of this provision, section 65 confers labour rights on every person and refers directly to the right to fair and safe practices and standards.

By its definition, an act of sexual harassment constitutes a violation of the constitutionally protected right to fair labour standards and also violates the right to full and equal dignity. The right to fair and safe labour standards is realised under the provisions of the Labour Act [Chapter28:01] whose primary purpose is regulation of the employer-employee relationship. The Act narrowly defines sexual harassment through inference from section 8(h) which provides for unfair labour practices.

Under this provision, engaging in unwelcome sexually-determined behaviour towards an employee, whether verbal or otherwise, such as making physical contact or advances, sexually-coloured remarks or displaying pornographic material in the workplace constitutes commission of an unfair labour practice. For employees in the public service, section 4 of the Public Service Regulations S.I 1 of 2000 provides for ‘discourteous behaviour’ during the course of duty to include sexual harassment. The regulations do not specifically define sexual harassment but put it in association with prohibited and unacceptable conduct.

There are no stipulated laws on workplace relationships but when it extends to harassment, the laws are there especially when the relationship becomes sour or there are break-ups.

When workplace break-ups lead to sexual harassment

The break-up of a relationship is bad enough, especially when you see the person every day, risking your emotional well-being, job performance and professional identity. Sexual harassment can occur in many ways, some of the common examples are when a relationship ends, but one of the former partners continues to pursue the other partner in the workplace. The partner may still continue to expose himself/herself or talk in a sexually explicit and seductive or demanding manner to the other party. More so, after a break-up, one of the partners may speak negatively about the other or tell stories about their sexual relationship or share private information about the other partner with individuals at work, which may often be very embarrassing.

Policies on workplace relationships

The workplace is a professional environment, so no matter who you work with, you will want to maintain that professionalism during working hours. Employers’ right to regulate their employees’ out of work conduct remains a contested legal question. However, one thing is clear: it depends a lot on where the relationship takes place and if those who are included have disclosed the relationship, of which it is unheard of.

Employers can’t expect to assert the right to take action against employees who they think have misbehaved, if they don’t set out rules on employee conduct in the first place.

This brings the reason why most workplaces must have clear policies on relationships.

If employers don’t have these policies, potential conflict of interest can arise. For example, if two workers are in a romantic relationship and one is performance appraising or deciding on the promotion of the other, then there is bound to be a bias. It is vital to note that developing an appropriate relationship policy that guides how employees relate helps in determining to what extent our behaviour should go towards one another. When developing such policy as an organisation you may want to think about preserving your organisational culture and the work environment you want to provide for employees.

What you should do if you are sexually harassed?

If your former partner continues to pursue you or harasses you in the workplace, there are several things that you must do. Ensure that he or she knows that the conduct is unwelcome. After you do so, do not accept any invitations for personal interactions outside of work, flirt, or send out any mixed signals. Make sure that your actions are unambiguous and are completely consistent with your desire for the harassing behaviour to stop.

If the conduct persists, complain to a responsible party in your company, for example to the human resources department and make your complaint in writing or through e-mail. If your company does not properly respond to your complaint or turns against you, consider taking legal action by contacting an attorney.

The dilemma

Conflict emanating from such relationships can be catastrophic as it has in some instances wrecked careers and marriages. A relationship between two employees affects more than just those two people. Personal lives and professional lives should always be separated. If the relationship falls apart, it could cause a lot of problems at the workplace. When you mix and mingle your love life with your professional life, it can cause unwanted and unexpected drama if it’s not handled the right way. Office romances can stifle productivity, lead to sexual harassment charges, and destroy the workplace environment.

What if I’m already in it?

There are many people who successfully date co-workers or business associates, and maintain their work integrity even when those relationships end. Please note that we are not encouraging workplace relationships but obviously considering that some are already in the situation, it is important to stay calm if the relationship ends because not every office relationship will end in true love. You have to remain professional if your workplace relationship comes to an end, no matter what the reason. When you break up you should also avoid any workplace friction that could be caused from either party. The workplace is a place to work, and romantic relationships need to stay outside of that environment. My advice is: do not get started in the first place; don’t take that first step down the proverbial “ethical slippery slope.” No matter what your intentions are, it’s best not to date your managers, clients or subordinates. It is a bad idea to get involved with anybody who is in your chain of command up or down.